In this thought capsule, inspired by the reading of the very stimulating book Deep History by David Laibman, I’m not going to claim, as others have done, that we are going to evolve to some kind of neo-medievalism, or a new period of dark ages. But rather, that there are some interesting similarities between the slavery-to-feudal transition and the capitalism to P2P transition.
Slavery was a system of “extensive” development. It had a low productivity from which a maximum surplus was extracted through a costly control system. Growth had to take place through growth in space, by conquering lands depleting their populations for slavery and tribute. Slave lives were short, surrounding areas were depleted of human material, and it was often marked by population decline. However, there was always a point where the cost of expansion did not cover the productivity gains of the system as a whole, and this is when Empires started to falter, either by being replaced by another, by being taking over by surrounding “barbarians”, or, in the rather unique case of the Roman Empire, it was replaced by a different system.
Feudalism arose because failing extensive development, led to a quest for intensive development, i.e. more productivity, but this could only happen by fundamentally altering the social system. While the slave system could not give more productive autonomy to the slaves, the new system of feudalism could. Feudalism was a retreat to the local, to the manor, but within that manor, serfs could now form families, keep a fixed relative part of their produce, and the monetary taxation was sharply reduced. Not only did agricultural productivity rise and innovation in machinery occur, but the producing class kept a larger part of the created value. (so, initially, as compared to the surplus that went to the slave owning class, it may have been a rather raw deal for the new rulers, with a much lower surplus to create high culture, at least in the first 500 years, before the first medieval renaissance).
Also, this is important, feudalism produces directly for use value, not for a monetary economy. Feudalism was therefore a reconfiguration of the two main classes into something new. Slave owners became feudal lords, slaves became serfs, though of course the new lords most often came from the invading Germanic peoples (and as Foucault notes, it was the sons of the old Roman ruling class which became the church leaders and clergy, making a deal with the new kings against the lower feudal orders).
What I want to show now is how similar is the predicament of the current world-system. After 1989 and the fall of the centralized state socialisms, capitalism is now a global system, without any outside. While there are still wide areas of the world that could be more developed, it is hitting ecological, energy and natural resource limits. Already consuming two planets, it is an impossibility for China and India to achieve the same levels of the West, despite their very fast growth, as that would consume four planets. Maintaining an infinite growth system in a finite material world, is a logical and physical impossibility. What this means is that the limits of extensive development are being reached, just as happened with the Roman Empire. But surely, capitalism could switch to a mode of intensive development, becoming a cognitive, experience-based economy?
Well, not exactly, because what the current evolution is telling us, is that only a tiny fraction of the development within the immaterial sphere can be monetized. In peer production, we are again producing for use value directly. In an immaterial sphere of virtual abundance through marginal reproduction costs, where there is no tension between supply and demand, markets can only arise at the margins. Sadly for the present system, the switch to the immaterial growth, from extensive to intensive development, is going to happen in a similar way than the slavery to feudal transition, by a transformation of the fundamental logic of the whole system.
There are more similarities. We just noted the shift to the primacy of use value. We should also note that we will have a return to the local. Indeed, globalized trade is a function of cheap energy prices, and when those conditions disappear, along with the miniaturization of productive machinery, the advantages of scale of large centralized production will tend to disappear. (I would argue that while capital still seems necessary, the monopoly that is had on organization and on the ability to buy large-scale physical machinery, is eroding.) But the relocalization of the economy will be matched by the globalization of intellectual and spiritual culture. Only this time, it won’t be the Christian Church that will be the vehicle, but the internet. Globa-local open design communities will co-exist with more localized production communities and enterprises.
Also similar to feudalism is the reconfiguration of the classes. (let us contrast this with the creation of a new middle layer in feudalism, which became the bourgeois class). Within the capital owning class, we see the emergence of a new netarchical class. These are no longer relying on the ownership of the means of production, hiring workers to create value, but rather, they create proprietary platforms to enable and empower sharing and peer production to occur. In their systems, value is created by the user communities, no longer by themselves. They do not sell commodities, only the attention of those that are creating use value on the platforms. On the level of the producers, a reconfiguration is occurring as well. Unlike the traditional workers who had no means of production and had to sell their labour, the emerging class of knowledge workers does again own its means of production (i.e. their brains and their computers, using the network to configure themselves at present in a wide variety of new organizational formats from open source communities to networked micro agencies. What is still open in terms of the transition, is the exact configuration and power relations of those two forces.
So the reconfiguration will in my opinion happen like this. There will be a shift from extensive material development, to intensive immaterial development. The core logic of the creation of immaterial cultural, intellectual and spiritual value in this coming world of open design, will be non-reciprocal peer production. In the world of scarce material resources needing to be allocated, infinite growth capitalism will be replaced by new forms of peer-informed markets and various reciprocity based schemes.
While the resulting new meta-system is therefore fundamentally different in its core logic than feudalism, despite some similarities, what is interesting is the uncanny analogy between the slavery-to-feudal transition and the expected capitalism to P2P transition.